Written submission to the Bush Fire Mitigation Summit
General comments about the Bush Fire Mitigation Summit
The Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades (AVBFB) is very appreciative of the pre-election commitment made by the now Premier, Hon Mark McGowan to host a Bush Fire Mitigation Summit as well as his new Minister’s delivery of that promise on Friday 23 June 2017.
For many highly professional, multi-skilled and deeply dedicated members of our proud Volunteer Bush Fire Service (VBFS), this commitment symbolised a very positive breakthrough in a relationship that is unquestionably necessary for the protection of our community and the natural and built assets we are lucky enough to share.
Indeed, the prospect of being part of a genuine and open consultation with both the Executive and Administrative arms of government was the opposite to what many volunteers had come to expect after enduring the previous government’s flawed strategy of attempting to ‘divide and conquer’ the hard-working members of the VBFS.
While we acknowledge that this is not the ideal forum in which to detail all of the previous government’s efforts to derail our dedication to representing volunteers without fear or favour, it is critically important to preface our formal submission to the Bush Fire Mitigation Summit with some background about our not-for-profit charity:
- Our primary goal is to improve the safety, well-being and respect of every member of Western Australia’s largest emergency service – the VBFS
- The AVBFB does not operate with any political motive or agenda
- We always endeavour (and prefer) to work cooperatively with every willing stakeholder
- The AVBFB understands the need for discretion and will always protect and respect confidential information
- We believe the strongest relationships are based on mutual honesty, openness, empathy and respect
- Our resources are currently extremely limited and we work very hard to engage and consult with as many members and other stakeholders as possible as often as possible
- We acknowledge and welcome diversity of culture, gender, age and opinion among our membership
- All AVBFB Board members are unpaid and elected by a vote in which all VBFS Brigades are entitled and encouraged to participate
- No member of the AVBFB Board is paid by the organisation
Having clearly articulated our strong support for the new government’s intent to consult and value volunteers as well as declared our commitment to nothing other than genuine, positive reform, it is important to note that AVBFB was disappointed by several aspects of the Summit.
“Firstly, I would like to say that this is typical of a centralised system (and part of the problem) to organise an important Summit that could have great outcomes for the future of the states preparedness for bushfire and they give limited input and preparation time for the volunteers that will be ultimately affected by the fires.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
As we have already addressed most of these concerns with the Minister, there is no need to (or benefit in) individually naming those issues here. It is suffice to make the point that the recurring theme of disillusion and frustration expressed by many of our members is the apparent lack of understanding and/or concern for the unique motives and challenges faced by our essential volunteer emergency service personnel.
One of the core reasons the AVBFB supports a Rural Fire Service independent of the current bureaucracy is that after years of focussed endeavour, we have been unable to elicit relatively simple and cost-free changes to process and behaviour that would demonstrate empathy (and therefore respect) of volunteers. This has led us to the conclusion that it is simply not possible for one organisation to competently manage the rigid ‘command and control’ system it necessarily employs with paid staff at the same time as offering the flexibility and support required to maintain respect for a diverse group of people who donate their time and expertise with varied motives.
This very important point is made in the sincere hope that the following document is accepted as a genuine attempt to assist the government answer its questions about bush fire mitigation and deliver its promise to implement every recommendation of the Ferguson Review that will see a new culture develop that honestly respects, consults and empowers the exceptional members of Western Australia’s Volunteer Bush Fire Service.
Response to the published terms of reference
1. The effectiveness of prescribed burning and other mitigation strategies
There is universal agreement among experienced members of the Volunteer Bush Fire Service and a growing majority of academics that mitigation is the most effective and cost-efficient tool currently available for managing major bushfires, especially when undertaken by volunteers.
“Bushfires will happen – even if every man-made cause is eliminated, there will be lighting strikes. It is part of Australia, and should not, cannot, be eliminated. We need to have the grace to accept that it cannot always be controlled. But it’s impact can be mitigated, and we need to be wise enough to do that without harming the country.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
Furthermore, the undeniable positive correlation between available fuel load and the likelihood of a dangerous wildfire gives rise to the sound argument that any investment (human and/or capital) in direct fuel reduction activities is akin to an insurance expense. Since a large proportion of mitigation activities are undertaken by local volunteer bush fire brigades, the cost of that insurance is not only far lower, but “budgetable” – unlike the cost of losing built and natural resources through a catastrophic fire like those WA has endured over recent summers.
“Attitudes need to change from a response to mitigation focus. If a portion of the money spent on response was spent on mitigation, the need for large scale response would be reduced dramatically.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
Like others at the in-person Summit, the AVBFB advocates the need for flexibility in the approach to mitigation activities. Changing weather conditions, availability of personnel and other variables means plans can – and should – change to ensure community safety and maximum effectiveness of the work. At present, there are a number of obstacles to that end, including time-consuming “red tape” that is overly restrictive and not valid for long periods of time. Although changes in this regard would require diligence in terms of ensuring that emergency resources are available to assist if necessary when delayed activities are enacted, it is preferable for the system to allow this kind of flexibility rather than coerce an agency into undertaking mitigation in less than optimal circumstances.
“Prescriptions for burns need to be current for successive seasons so that if the area is not burnt in that year due to seasonal conditions, the paper work and planning is available for the following years until the area is burnt. The prescription could be valid for 5 years. Too much time and money is used up in getting the prescriptions for them not to be used.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
While prescribed burning is clearly the highest profile type of bush fire mitigation, it is important to note that volunteer bush fire brigades are regularly involved in other highly effective prevention strategies that often go unnoticed to the general public (and government statistics).
These include relatively obvious activities such as directly assisting land-owners clear combustible rubbish, slash long grass and prune trees from around their properties as well as a number that aren’t necessarily as evident.
While some might argue that these less direct strategies should not be considered (or funded as) mitigation, the AVBFB strongly asserts that activities such as providing bush fire awareness training to school children, presenting information to land-owners about risk management and sharing local knowledge with planning agencies all make a significant contribution to the prevention of bushfire and are therefore by definition, forms of mitigation.
“Look at the cost of property damage, compare that to the cost and effectiveness of prescribed burning and other mitigation.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
Unfortunately, however the lack of awareness that many of these activities even occur also means little or no research has been done to determine their effectiveness as mitigation strategies.
Government must ensure that its definition of “bush fire mitigation” is not limited only to fuel load reduction activities.
Prescriptions for burning should be as flexible as possible to allow for optimal conditions before the burn is undertaken.
Consideration should be given to directly resourcing research into all mitigation activities, including indirect strategies with a longer-term goal of evaluating their individual ROI ratios and effectiveness.
2. Local government responsibilities and capacity
“Prescribed burning needs to be very carefully micromanaged by local people, taking into account flora, fauna, terrain, time of year, visual amenity etc etc. It needs DPaW and local resident engagement.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
Feedback from Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades suggests that Local Governments are feeling greater pressure to proactively undertake mitigation activities in many regions. The AVBFB understands this to be a result of a combination of stronger community support for mitigation work (or perhaps fear of disaster if not) and avoidance of litigation should the worst occur.
Whether in reality or perception alone, there is certainly an emergent view among the broader community that Local Governments have both legal and moral responsibilities for mitigation within its boundaries – even when they have no ownership or control over land considered high risk.
While the AVBFB knows that mitigation is an extremely valuable investment and completely endorses a stronger focus on general preparedness, we are also cognisant of the fact that in most communities, Local Governments have very little capacity to undertake any risk management work other than the most critical. In this sense, “capacity” not only means the cash required to pay for the works, but also the person-hours, infrastructure and expertise to educate, plan and manage significant community-wide mitigation activities.
“It is very important that local Government be given more funding and the ability to control with responsibility the prevention, education and engagement with its community and have more ability to actively achieve the mitigation in their Shires.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
The Association therefore urges immediate intervention to both explicitly allow ESL funding to be allocated toward Local Government initiated and managed mitigation – not just burning – and to transfer the authority to approve ESL funding from DFES to an independent agency.
“LGA need effective funding as otherwise they will be discouraged from maintaining Bushfire Management and opt away from it which is certainly not in the interest of local community.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
The guidelines for ESL grants must be immediately changed to explicitly allow applicants to seek funding for mitigation planning, education and management.
The responsibility for determining which ESL grants are approved must immediately be transferred from DFES to an agency that is neither perceived to be, or in actuality, subordinate to DFES or funded by the ESL in any way.
3. How to better utilise fire ground experience
“In the early stage of fire too many layers too much time wasted waiting decisions whilst the fire is growing in size, fire doesn’t wait for bureaucracy to catch up.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
The AVBFB is under no illusion that the creation of an independent Rural Fire Service (RFS) will be the panacea to this issue, however it will be the single most impactful thing government can do to better utilise the immense fire ground experience currently held in the heads of thousands of veteran Volunteer Bush Fire Service members across the State.
“Some people can learn easily out of books but don’t perform well under pressure. In the rural areas the fire management should be left to the Chiefs and Fire Control officers as you cannot beat local knowledge….Local knowledge is not to be dismissed.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
It is an unfortunate reality that although the opportunity for genuine knowledge-sharing could theoretically still happen under the current bureaucracy, its relationship with many deeply experienced volunteers has been so seriously eroded that any truly open collaboration with many of them is now impossible.
“The lack of support to BFB’s is fully condoned… [DFES] officers have distanced themselves. The attitude that we won’t support Shire Brigades because ‘they are not our volunteers’ has been actively promoted.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
Hence, the AVBFB is of the strongest view that not only would Western Australia be far better serviced by a Rural Fire Service independent of its Metropolitan Fire Rescue colleague, the creation of such would also provide a “clean slate” opportunity to reinforce the value of volunteers and their local knowledge.
“Bushfires are difficult to handle. Working strictly to a rule book is useless as each requires on the go adjustments to its management.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
While the current relationship difficulties between many volunteers and the bureaucracy stem from fundamentally different cultures/world-views, the most irrevocable damage has been done when the advice of highly experienced, senior volunteers has been ignored or even overruled by paid Incident Controllers with formal qualifications but little or no local knowledge. Under an independent RFS, major incidents could and should be managed by a duly qualified member of the local service.
“In instances where personnel are brought in to support an incident, a good representation of local knowledge needs to remain in leadership positions in IMT and on the fire ground.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
“Management of bushfires should have as many local experienced people involved in the IMT teams as possible. What works for fire management in one area is not suitable for another so this is where the local knowledge is invaluable.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
Irrespective of the structure of a Rural Fire Service, all future major incident reviews must be undertaken by an organisation independent of DFES and preferably government, and report directly to the Parliament. A number of recent reviews have been carried out by either DFES or an external consultancy contracted and reporting to DFES. Regardless of the actual process, both scenarios create the perception that the final report has been ‘sanitised’ to ensure the findings do not damage the brand of the agency.
Furthermore, the involvement of the employing agency (DFES in this instance) has the potential to contribute to staff being reluctant to be 100% open with their views out of fear of retaliation.
While the AVBFB understands the need for reputation management and is also open to the argument that internal reviews are in fact credible, major incident reviews are genuine opportunities for learning and improvement and therefore must be seen to be a ‘warts and all’ account of each incident. To extract maximum benefit, all stakeholders must have confidence that the final report has been completely free from government manipulation.
The future Rural Fire Service must ensure local incident controllers remain part of every IMT at incidents involving volunteers
All major incident reviews must be undertaken by an agency unrelated to DFES and preferably external to government and report directly to the Parliament.
4. Bushfire mitigation resourcing
“More money needs to be put into mitigation to prepare the landscape for fire and reduce its severity. It is cheaper, easier and more effective to be prepared than to respond.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
There are currently major inadequacies in the resourcing of bush fire mitigation activities in Western Australia and as a result, not enough work able to be done to prepare communities for high risk periods.
Generally, the AVBFB supports the principle of land-owners being legally responsible for risk management on their own properties. In a perfect world, this would mean all mitigation activities are paid for directly by each title holder. However, in practice issues such as unallocated Crown land, recalcitrant/ignorant private land-owners and government agencies with no funding hypothecated for mitigation create a need for outside intervention for the sake of the whole community.
While this intervention is often mitigation work carried out by volunteer bush fire brigades and therefore require very little costly labour, there are other genuine costs involved in planning, coordinating and managing the activities.
“Planning to do any burns now requires someone to do all the ground work in setting up and organising.” – AVBFB member (name withheld)
As the current ESL guidelines explicitly rule out grants being made available for mitigation work, local governments and other agencies are then forced to make unbudgeted expenditures and simply cannot afford to fund any activities other than what is required to addresses only the most extreme risks. In turn, this means less mitigation work than otherwise should be occurring which obviously increases the overall risk to communities.
“I would like to see a greater share of the ESL allocated to LGA’s to spend on and/or distribute to brigades actively engaged in bushfire mitigation and prescribed burning… This could range from incentive payments, meals, additional PPE or extra equipment for brigades” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
The AVBFB asserts that immediate action is required to markedly increase both the level and accessibility of resources available for all types of mitigation activities. It is acknowledged that the current government has limited capacity to increase financial resources in the short term and therefore recommends that any extra State funding for mitigation activities should be made available via ESL grants. The Association also believes there is significant opportunity for greater collaboration between State and Federal Government agencies and the Volunteer Bush Fire Service that could enable more mitigation activities on government-owned land without a financial cost.
The ESL should be immediately made available for mitigation works.
The State Government, WALGA and AVBFB to collaboratively develop a “toolkit” for government agencies and private land-owners that explores innovative ideas to get help from local Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades with mitigation works.
5. Personal responsibility and landowners’ understanding of site-specific risk
While there are undoubtedly some land-owners who contradict our general view, the AVBFB has anecdotal evidence that there is a relatively strong understanding of site-specific risk and acceptance of personal responsibility within most farming communities and many regional non-farming towns.
“The community of [redacted] relies very largely on farmer response to sprees fight and engage with fire, often it is farmer response units that are first responders and in some cases the only responders to fire in the eastern wheat belt indeed DFES would not have the budget to even contemplate fire control in the wheatbelt without farmer response units. Farmers work on the ethos that it’s your place today and tomorrow it might be mine. The smart future thinking must incorporate that principal first and fore most long before bureaucracies start to mess with rules and regulation or worst still alienate the great spirit of good will that is the community (an idea that is fundamental to farmers but completely foreign to lawmakers and politicians.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
However, the Association does hold grave concerns for the future in this regard due to the declining numbers of people willing to become members of volunteer emergency services.
“A proud and proactive volunteer system which encompasses locals and values there (sic) input is the future.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
As well as being able to respond to small fires before they become much larger, one of the highest returns Western Australia receives from our 580+ Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades is the regular presence of highly skilled and bushfire-aware members of small communities across our State.
Not only do these individuals contribute to the general ability – and therefore confidence – of small communities to be resilient in the face of varied adversity and natural disaster, the AVBFB asserts that they also often become extremely valuable local leaders and “champions” for self-determination, risk-management and personal responsibility among their neighbours.
“Since the establishment of Bushfire ready groups in this area we are experiencing less and less call outs… Education of the public has been a major contributor and for this reason I consider that it should be encouraged… Not just a ‘Yes we will encourage this’ but firm commitments to get things going in all prone areas. The value of these community groups should not be underestimated ultimately saving millions of damage and hours of volunteers time.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
The Association submits that with an extremely modest capital investment, a collaboration with government could empower the AVBFB to support and encourage the development of these local champions, resulting in a network of volunteers willing and able to proactively educate local (and government) land-owners about risk management and provide practical guidance and assistance on mitigation strategies.
The AVBFB is of the very firm view that in terms of return on investment, the innovative idea to develop and support local volunteers to become “champions” will deliver significantly more (and broader) returns than any “traditional” education campaign, should this be an active consideration of government.
If government considers an education campaign regarding bush fire risk awareness and management, strong consideration should be given to working with the AVBFB to develop a network of already trained volunteers to champion the message at a local level.
6. The outcomes resulting from the Ferguson Report and other major bushfire reviews
“As a member of the [redacted] Volunteer Bushfire Brigade I was extremely excited when I read the Ferguson report. It reinforced previous report positions and provided well documented and substantiated recommendations, based on hands on knowledge, for government to go forward on. The Ferguson report cited many operational examples of the failure of the current centralised system which as a lowly volunteer have been extremely apparent in my personal experiences on and off the fire ground. The critical recommendation was the implementation of a separate fire service to accommodate and manage volunteers. Without this happening, much of what was in the report recommendations will not be able to occur.” – AVBFB Member (Name withheld)
Unfortunately, the AVBFB had neither the resources or time to enable it to prepare a thorough response to the outcomes of all previous major incident reviews.
However, as per the AVBFB’s ongoing commitment to contribute toward making things better and safer for our community whenever possible, we offer the following in response to recommendation 15, the only one specifically addressed by Summit participants.
Ferguson Report Recommendation 15: The State Government to create a Rural Fire Service to enhance the capability for rural fire management and bushfire risk management at a State, regional and local level.
“The recent change of Government together with the release of the Ferguson Report and recommendations contained therein provide a great opportunity for improvement of WA’s Bush Fire mitigation and management systems.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
Along with numerous others who spoke at the in-person Bush Fire Mitigation Summit, the AVBFB’s members strongly support the creation of a Rural Fire Service independent of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. For the record, it is also acknowledged that an equal number supported a RFS within DFES.
“I think the Ferguson Report encapsulates the requirements for the path forward for Bushfire management and all its aspects in WA. The Report into the Esperance Fires also supports the need for substantial change.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
However, it is the AVBFB’s objective view that creating a Rural Fire Service as a sub-department of DFES would not resolve the most difficult issues identified in this and several previous reviews and in fact, exacerbate them.
“The creation of a RFS: I think the Government will not go down the path of a separate RFS but will endorse the creation of a RFS as a division of DFES. The danger here is that DFES will expect to parachute the same individuals who have failed to support the BFB into senior positions so the culture of failure will continue.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
- It is fair to say that stakeholders generally fall into two clearly delineated groups: those who believe the RFS should be a sub-department of DFES; and those who believe the RFS should be completely independent of DFES.
- The author of the Ferguson Review consulted with all stakeholders involved in the incident and came to the view that the majority believed change was required.
- Those who support the RFS as a sub-department of DFES are presumably satisfied with the status quo or ambivalent and therefore would have expressed either no desire for change or a willingness to accept either outcome to the Ferguson Review.
- Those who are of the view that the RFS should be independent are evidently unsatisfied with the current situation and therefore expressed desire for change to the Ferguson Review.
- If a Rural Fire Service is created as a sub-department of DFES, the stakeholders who were the catalyst for Euan Ferguson to recommend change (i.e. those who prefer an independent RFS) will remain dissatisfied, thus resulting in no improvement to morale or relationships.
“I feel the general theme in the Ferguson report, of a more community based management system, is critical to improvements in bushfire mitigation work and future bushfire control. I understand there is bureaucratic and union obstacles to overcome however without the government taking this step I do not have any confidence in meaningful improvement being possible.” – AVBFB Member (Name withheld)
- Furthermore, the stakeholders who want change would very likely interpret a decision to create a new sub-department of DFES as nothing more than tokenistic re-branding and therefore a waste of valuable time and resources. This in turn, will have the probable effect of further damaging the already dysfunctional relationship.
“The ‘new RFS’ needs to return to Community Centred Emergency Management and engage with the community on all aspects of PPRR. In addition the response to fires needs to follow the ‘Graduated Response’ protocol which includes embedding in Incident Management Teams local expertise, knowledge and culture.” – AVBFB Member (name withheld)
- In contrast, the creation of an independent Rural Fire Service will reconcile the currently divided parties and at worst, provoke a “wait and see” response from those who saw no cause for change. This outcome will provide a clean slate upon which the new Rural Fire Service can begin to rebuild the critical relationships with those who have lost trust and strengthen the relationship that already exists with those who were not seeking change.
“We need to establish consistency and common positions across LG, so we have a team of similar roles and positions which is something a Rural fire service would incorporate.” – AVBFB Member (Name withheld) Recommendation 11 An independent Rural Fire Service must be established as soon as possible.